A group of 125 patients with abdominal sepsis admitted to the intensive therapy unit between January 1990 and June 1993 were reviewed to determine outcome. Mean(s.d.) age was 66(12) years and admission Acute Physiology And Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE) II score 23(9). The hospital mortality rate was 63 per cent. Factors associated with mortality included age, APACHE II score, occurrence of septic shock, chronic ill health, female sex, sepsis of upper gastrointestinal origin and failure to clear the source of sepsis (all P < 0.05). Delay to surgery, anastomotic leakage and presence of malignancy did not influence survival significantly. Quality of life (measured by the World Health Organization performance score) at 15 months after discharge showed 24 of 32 survivors to be independent, ambulatory and capable of self care. No patient survived to become completely disabled. The factors associated with survival did not predict subsequent quality of life. Accurately defining the characteristics of this heterogeneous group of patients is a prerequisite for improved treatment, patient selection and research.